Thursday, May 18, 2017

Reflections on the Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year A: To An Unknown God and Other Insights

Anna Chromy's sculpture:
15ft high "Cloak of Conscience"
Paul's speech before the Athenians at the Areopagus is a story that has over the years meant a great deal to me as a preacher and as a disciple of Jesus. Paul sees the willingness of the Athenians to cover their bases in their worship of their many pagan gods with a small altar on which he finds an inscription dedicating it to "An Unknown God." (In Greek, "Agnostoi Theoi") He even quotes a famous-at -the-time poet philosopher named Aratus the Cilician whose major work, Phenomena,
as he praises the All-father Zeus whose work he sees all around him. That praise of sentiment, "For we are all his offspring" is Paul's "hook" into the Athenians. They know and can contextualize his point...while at the same time he gently and with reverence upbraids them for running after false Gods, when the God of all is withing reach in a relationship with the person of Jesus Christ, the Risen Son. 

I heard one of the best sermons of my life while at seminary, preached by my spiritual director, Br. Douglas Brown (Holy Cross). He spoke eloquently and honestly to the great challenges we all face as we stumble along as servants to the living God. A man in recovery, he talked about his own idolatries, and invited us to explore our own. How many gods we come up with at we deal with the many and various denials of God and the addictions to "that which is other than God" in our lives!

His journey through the temples of his own personal psyche, naming the gods he used to distract and distance himself from God was tragic and beautiful at the same time. Are our own temple precincts any less cluttered? I can, now nearly a quarter-century after the experience of Douglas' testimony, give vent to the many temples, shrines, altars and high places I have cluttered my life with as I have stumbled after Jesus. I can also, by the grace of a loving savior and the near-ancient testimony of a wise monk, begin to let the wild and loving nature of God begin to overtake those columns and altars. As they are slowly reclaimed by the nature of God that, like Nature itself eventually pulls down the architecture of most things we humans build, I give thanks for Paul, the ascribed sermon to the Athenians and to Jesus himself who continues to love us all despite our petty...and sometimes egregious...idolatries.

We were reading Morning Prayer on Wednesday, and the selection from the Wisdom of Solomon set me mind racing as I prepared for this that morning's Bible Study, this blog post and for Sunday's preaching. The writer speaks to the folly of human beings (ancient and modern) who, seeing the majesty and beauty of creation (or the majesty and beauty of human endeavor) decide to apply reverence to the thing to the point of deification instead of seeking out, giving credit to and blessing and worshiping the one who created all things.

For all people who were ignorant of God were foolish by nature;
and they were unable from the good things that are seen to know the one who exists,
nor did they recognize the artisan while paying heed to his works;
but they supposed that either fire or wind or swift air,
or the circle of the stars, or turbulent water,
or the luminaries of heaven were the gods that rule the world.
If through delight in the beauty of these things people assumed them to be gods,
let them know how much better than these is their Lord,
for the author of beauty created them.
And if people were amazed at their power and working,
let them perceive from them
how much more powerful is the one who formed them.
For from the greatness and beauty of created things
comes a corresponding perception of their Creator.
Yet these people are little to be blamed,
for perhaps they go astray
while seeking God and desiring to find him.
For while they live among his works, they keep searching,
and they trust in what they see, because the things that are seen are beautiful.
Yet again, not even they are to be excused;
for if they had the power to know so much
that they could investigate the world,
how did they fail to find sooner the Lord of these things?
Wisdom 13:1-9
It's moving to see how even the wisest among us can acknowledge that while the seeking of God is ongoing in most people's lives...most people stumble along that road as if they are in the dark and the road itself is as filled with potholes as the roads of New Jersey are after the spring thaw.

The first letter of Peter goes to great pains to coach us on dealing with both our own distractions from God's calling to witness God's grace and love in Christ. First, he reminds us that our witness (yes, the same word means witness and martyr in Greek!) is one which can cause strife in those listening. Answering the call to follow Jesus entails cost,  because to seek and follow one God, the one God who is the one who creates, redeems and sanctifies all, means admitting that we can't keep on keeping on with the things and behaviors that we use to distract ourselves from that grace. When someone takes away the veils of denial and invites us to confront our addictions and idols, the response is seldom, ever, "THANK YOU!" Yes?

So Peter quotes Jesus himself, from Matthew 5:10: "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." Yeah, the first response is rejection at best. You might face worse...and so Peter tells us to first and foremost be ready to witness and preach to the love of God AT ALL TIMES...and to be ready to do so with gentleness and reverence.

Br. Douglas did that with us that day in the Chapel as he preached about his own demons, godlets and idols. He talked about, and named, all those things that distracted him from the never-fading light of God's love...and at the same time with gentle reverence asked us to turn to Jesus and away from the many liturgies to which we had given too much time to in distraction and dissipation. Too much time away from God is the result...and yet God is ever-willing to go back to day 1 of both sobriety and reconciliation with us, over and over again.

That is the good news of Eastertide, and the reality of our present day today, for the ancient past and for our future heirs...we follow a living God who, while the author and crafter of all things, at the same time waits patiently for us to turn from our distractions and walk in the light of a love that burns through and in all things.

Even us, little, distracted and hobbling as we can be.....

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